Mexican manifesto by Carlos Fuentes


"A New Time For Mexico," by Carlos Fuentes. 215 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.

The cry for true democratic reform in Mexico has grown fierce and strong, but never has it been more eloquent and provocative than in Carlos Fuentes' new book, "A New Time For Mexico."

In the style that has made him Mexico's leading literary figure, Fuentes weaves prose with political commentary to bring alive and demand support for the struggle of his country's poor and powerless to win not only the most basic of rights, but political clout.

Mexicans are groping, Fuentes says, for a way to make a smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy. But at the same time they are reaching toward future reforms, they are pulled down by conditions that were first imposed on them by Spanish settlers and are upheld today by the Eurocentric Mexican elite, 4 percent of the people in the country who control almost half of the nation's wealth.

In his book, Fuentes calls for tax reform, saying that if the &L; wealthy were forced to pay their fair share, it would "do wonders'"for increasing salaries, improving schools and domestic productivity.

He urges the Mexican government, controlled without any checks by the president and his cabinet, to relinquish some of its authority to governors and town mayors who have proven that they are better qualified at controlling local affairs.

Reform should not be imposed from above, he said. It must be respected from the bottom. And, Fuentes said, violence against those who demand change must be stopped.

In one of the most moving chapters of his book, Fuentes details the murder of popular leader Ruben Jaramillo, moving back and forth from interviews with those who participated in Jaramillo's movement to narrative accounts of how Jaramillo, his pregnant wife and three sons were kidnapped, beaten and gunned down in the 1960s.

In the chapter, Fuentes points out that by killing Jaramillo, the government did not quash his movement. Hundreds more people were outraged and inspired to continue his fight. It is the same fight that is being waged today by indigenous people in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state.

So far, the elite have successfully ignored calls for reforms. But I imagine they will find it hard to ignore Fuentes. He is one of them.

The son of a diplomat, he served as ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977 and he has taught in some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and Europe. Twelve of his novels have been published in this country, including "A Change of Skin" and "The Old Gringo" which was turned into a movie starring Jane Fonda.

In 1984 Fuentes won the National Prize in Literature, Mexico's highest literary honor.

Although supportive of the struggles of the downtrodden, Fuentes' ties to the aristocracy are at times disturbingly clear. He talks about indigenous people from a very distant, patronizing point of view. For example, he expressed great astonishment that in their meetings with Mexican government officials, indigenous leaders were not only literate, but eloquent and wise.

"This dignified and intelligent people, increasingly aware of their rights, can and should elect its local leaders freely..." Mr. Fuentes wrote, referring to peasant leaders.

It is a comment that reflects a mindset that must be changed.

Ginger Thompson, a reporter for The Sun, was the Latin American correspondent between 1993 and 1996 and conducted a 14-month investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency's dealings in Honduras. She currently writes about religion.

Pub date: 7/07/96

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